Brexit and the democratic deficit

Back in June, an episode of Question Time was aired from my hometown of Caernarfon (14th of June, 2018). There were a number of issues with this broadcast, but the topic of this short article is a comment made by Matthew Wright (former host of Channel 5’s ‘The Wright Stuff’). As is inevitable these days, the vast majority of broadcast time was spent discussing Brexit and, on that very same subject, Wright said the following:

“[…] if we took the Welsh vote out, we’d have probably remained.”

This comment was quite intriguing – especially his use of the word “probably”, which indicates that he had no idea of the numbers and was simply being hyperbolic to make a point. Luckily, I did run the numbers, and shared them a few days later. Some of these numbers were mentioned by Ben Gwalchmai during the Wales Live leadership debate on Wednesday (21st of November, 2018), so now seems to be as good a time as any to share them again for added context.

To begin with, it’s probably worth a recap of how the referendum actually went:

 

Table 1: The results of the EU referendum as they happened

Leave (n) Remain (n) Leave (%) Remain (%)
UK 17,410,742 16,141,241 51.9% 48.1%
England 15,188,406 13,266,996 53.4% 46.6%
Scotland 1,018,322 1,661,191 38.0% 62.0%
Wales 854,572 772,347 52.5% 47.5%
Northern Ireland 349,442 440,707 44.2% 55.8%

 

As I’m sure most people remember, the result was hardly a landslide. What people will also remember is the disparity between countries: Scotland voted decisively to remain, with Northern Ireland just behind them. Meanwhile, England and Wales both voted to leave. Since Wright’s point was that Welsh voters actually made a difference in the referendum, the logical action here would be to completely remove Welsh votes from the picture.

Let’s imagine every single Welsh voter abstained, and see how this affects the results:

 

Table 2: The results of the EU referendum without Welsh votes

Leave (n) Remain (n) Leave (%) Remain (%)
UK 16,556,170 15,368,894 51.9% 48.1%
England 15,188,406 13,266,996 53.4% 46.6%
Scotland 1,018,322 1,661,191 38.0% 62.0%
Wales 0 0
Northern Ireland 349,442 440,707 44.2% 55.8%

 

Some serious questions about Welsh representation arise when faced with this result. I had to double check this a few times just to be completely sure, but I can assure you that this is exactly what would happen if none of the Welsh votes were counted. To get a better sense of the effect of Welsh votes on the outcome, it’s worth adding a digit to these numbers.

The UK voted to leave the EU by 51.89%. Without any Welsh votes, the UK would have voted to leave the EU by 51.86%.

And herein lies the problem. Many people repeatedly use the Welsh result to justify a destructive Hard Brexit and remind us that this is, in fact, what Wales voted for. Unfortunately, the picture is a little more nuanced than this lets on, and the effect of the Welsh Brexit vote on the overall result was akin to pushing a lorry that’s hurtling down the road at 50mph – you might think you influenced its course, but the truth is that it was heading towards the cliff whether you like it or not.

There are also a number of confounding factors that might go some way to explaining why the vote went the way it did in Wales. One of these may well be voter fatigue; there was an election to the National Assembly of Wales in May of the same year, which was less than two months before the referendum.

There is also the question of the media, or rather the lack of it. Scotland and Northern Ireland both have better-established independent press outlets, and even some of the “national” newspapers have Scottish editions with some editorial independence. Unbeknownst to many, the Scottish Sun declared its support for the Scottish Nationalist Party during the 2015 general election, while its sister paper supported the Conservative Party. This is in stark contrast to the same newspapers in Wales, where coverage of Welsh politics is almost nonexistent, and articles discussing devolved issues continue to refer to “this country” when they should really say England. This in itself has the potential to be a large factor in determining the outcome of the referendum, with Wales being a net exporter of goods and a net beneficiary of EU regional development funds – issues that would have hardly been mentioned in the UK media, if at all.

No doubt many people will have voted to leave irrespective of any of these circumstances, but it’s hard to tell which way the vote could have gone were these factors any different. Let’s imagine for a moment though, that not only did Wales vote decisively to remain in the EU, but Scotland and Northern Ireland’s vote was also more decisive. Let’s imagine we all voted 65% to remain and see how that would affect the outcome of the referendum:

 

Table 3: The results of the EU referendum if Scotland, Wales and NI voted 65% remain

Leave (n) Remain (n) Leave (%) Remain (%)
UK 16,972,210 16,579,773 50.6% 49.4%
England 15,188,406 13,266,996 53.4% 46.6%
Scotland 937,830 1,741,683 35.0% 65.0%
Wales 569,422 1,057,497 35.0% 65.0%
Northern Ireland 276,552 513,597 35.0% 65.0%

 

While this change definitely had an impact on the overall result, you’ll notice that it’s still a win for leave. Admittedly, it’s an even slimmer majority than the real result, but it highlights an important issue with the way democracy works in the UK.

All four countries of the UK have their own unique challenges and their own unique strengths, but many decisions made at the UK level are being done largely with England in mind – such are the quirks of a state where one country has a substantially larger population than the other constituent countries; it inevitably leads to the smaller countries’ issues being cast aside in favour of the bulk of the population. This is one of the many reasons that the current UK constitution is not really fit for purpose.

In a way, it doesn’t really matter which way Wales voted. We can dissect the result a number of ways, look into the reasons why people voted to leave, or even consider that remain campaigners may have been complacent. But ultimately, had we voted to remain, it seems unlikely this would have influenced the outcome. The sooner we come to terms with this reality, the sooner we can work on solutions to fix it.